A duty to be tolerant

The rise of intolerance is alarming. Dissent is smothered and self-censorship takes its place, endangering democracy itself.

Written by Soli J. Sorabjee | Updated: November 1, 2017 12:35:23 am
censorship, intolerance, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, human rights, intolerance in india, democracy, religious intolerance, Human Rights, 1975 Emergency, freedom of press, political intolerance, intolerant society, discrimination, film censorship, indian express news, india news, indian express opinion The co-relation between rights and duties has been recognised by our ancient rishis and in our sacred texts.

On January 26, 1950, India became a sovereign democratic republic. Its Constitution guaranteed a wide array of fundamental rights which were also made justiceable. The Constitution originally did not make any specific provision for duties of citizens. However, on analysis, duties are implicit because the Constitution permits reasonable restrictions on exercise of fundamental rights in public interest, which is on the premise that exercise of fundamental rights entails duties.

The co-relation between rights and duties has been recognised by our ancient rishis and in our sacred texts. The Bhagavad Gita teaches us that “Your duty is your right”. Gandhiji summed up the matter admirably: “I learned from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved come from duty well done”. According to Walter Lippman, the renowned American political commentator, “For every right that you cherish you have a duty which you must fulfil”.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 (UDHR) recognises the vital link between human rights and duties in Article 29 of the Declaration which states, “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible”. The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man of May 2, 1948 prescribes in Chapter 1 Rights and in Chapter 2 prescribes Duties. It is interesting that one of the duties prescribed is “the duty to pay taxes”. The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights of June 26, 1981 prescribes along with guaranteed rights some duties, one of which is “every individual shall have duties towards his family and society, the State and other legally recognised communities and the international community”. Again it is curious that Article 29(6) prescribes the duty “to pay taxes imposed by law in the interest of the society”. This duty regrettably is not generally performed in our country.

It was in 1976 during the June 1975 Emergency that a specific Chapter IV-A was incorporated in the Constitution and Article 51-A was enacted which lists certain duties to be performed by a citizen. Unfortunately, because of its timing, this was initially viewed with the suspicion that it was an attempt to curtail fundamental rights by way of enactment of the fundamental duties listed in Article 51-A. These misgivings were misplaced. A dispassionate reading of Article 51-A reveals that the basic premise underlying Article 51-A is that freedom without acceptance of responsibility can destroy the freedom itself, whereas when rights and responsibilities are balanced, freedom is enhanced and a better world order can be created.

Are fundamental duties enforceable? The Supreme Court in its decision in AIIMS Students’ Union v. AIIMS ruled that though “Article 51-A does not expressly cast any fundamental duty on the State, the fact remains that the duty of every citizen of India is the collective duty of the State”. Let us face the painful reality that one cannot effectively exercise fundamental rights nor perform fundamental duties unless tolerance is prevalent in society. Tolerance is not merely a goody goody virtue. It enjoins a positive attitude which permits and protects not only expression of thoughts and ideas which are accepted and are acceptable but which also accords freedom to the thought we hate.

Tolerance is desirable, nay essential, because it recognises that there can be more than one path for the attainment of truth and salvation. A tolerant society protects the right to dissent. If there is pervasive intolerance the inevitable consequence will be violence and that would ultimately pose a serious threat to our democracy.

Intolerance has a chilling, inhibiting effect on freedom of thought and expression. Development and progress in any field of human endeavour are not possible if tolerance is lacking. We know how Galileo suffered for his theory that the sun was the centre of our solar system and not the earth. Darwin was also a victim of intolerance and was lampooned and considered as an enemy of religion for his seminal work, The Origin of Species. Nearer home we have the example of Raja Ram Mohan Roy whose efforts for reform in the Hindu religion, especially for the abolition of Sati, evoked virulent opposition because of menacing intolerance. We must ensure that we do not revert to those dark days.

In its celebrated judgment in S. Rangarajan vs P. Jagjivan Ram, the Supreme Court emphasised that “we must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.”

At present the rise of intolerance is alarming. Even a moderate expression of a different point of view is viewed with resentment and hostility and there are vociferous demands for bans. The consequence is that dissent is smothered and self-censorship inevitably takes place. Healthy and vigorous debate is no longer possible. And when that happens democracy is under siege. Therefore it is of the utmost importance to include the practice of tolerance as a fundamental duty in Article 51-A. The problem is that tolerance cannot be legislated. Hence, we must develop the capacity for tolerance by fostering an environment of tolerance, a culture of tolerance.

The Press and news channels have an important role to play in this. They should incessantly preach the message that no group or body has the monopoly of truth and wisdom and we must respect the point of view of the “other minded”. The Press must unequivocally condemn instances of intolerance without fear of adverse consequences. There should be no dereliction of this duty or practice of tolerance. If this duty is conscientiously performed it would result in a salutary change in our society and also bring about understanding and harmony in relations between the peoples of our vast country. Is this utopian? Maybe. But remember that progress is the realisation of utopias.

The writer is a former attorney general of India.

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